LOS ANGELES: St. John's Church named as cathedral for diocese

November 13, 2007

After long consideration and careful planning, Bishop J. Jon Bruno has announced that the parish church of St. John's, Los Angeles, will become the procathedral of the Diocese of Los Angeles.

It will be "one cathedral ministry in two places," said Bruno, referring to the administrative and ministry work now housed at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles and the liturgical function that will be carried out at St. John's.

Bruno made the announcement October 7 at the annual fall Clergy Conference.

A service of dedication will take place on February 2, 2008, he said. "It means that we're a parish church functioning as a cathedral," explained St. John's rector, the Very Rev. Canon Mark Kowalewski, who picks up the title of dean along with the new designation. "What the Cathedral Center does well, it will continue to do; we will be the liturgical center for diocesan events. We will function as the public pulpit for the bishop."

According to Kowalewski, St. John's, located at 514 W. Adams in the University of Southern California campus district, will be referred to simply as "St. John's Cathedral," rather than "pro-cathedral" to avoid confusion. "We see it as supporting and supplementing but augmenting the ministry the Cathedral Center already does well," he said.

Meanwhile, the Romanesque-style church has already become the site for hosting large diocesan events, such as ordinations and, more recently, the 80th anniversary celebration of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Orthodox Church, which attracted about 750 guests. In January, it will host another ecumenical gathering, the Indian Rite Mass, with Christians and Hindus from India as well as upcoming ordinations and in that way will offer a sacred space for hospitality and radical welcome.

Included among the changes, Kowalewski said, is a shift of the role of canon theologian for the diocese to the Very Rev. Michael Battle, Cathedral Center provost. Battle joined the diocese in July of this year after teaching at Duke University School of Theology and the Virginia Theological Seminary.

Kowalewski said the changes are the culmination of years of conversations, some beginning as early as the 1920s when the present church structure was built and when "Fr. Davidson [first rector] had a dream it would one day become a cathedral for the diocese."

The diocese's Cathedral of St. Paul, located on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, was demolished in 1979 after being severely damaged in an earthquake. Its congregation joined that of St. Athanasius Church in Echo Park, the site of the present Cathedral Center of St. Paul.

"We began this process in January, 2006, not long after I became rector, but even in the days of Bishop [Robert C.] Rusack there were conversations about it. In the later 1980s, in the early days of Bishop [Frederick] Borsch, the same sorts of considerations were being made," Kowalewski said. Rusack served as fourth bishop of Los Angeles from 1976 until his death in 1986; Borsch was fifth bishop of the diocese, serving from 1988 until his retirement in 2002.

Episcopal witness in downtown L.A.
St. John's Church was organized as a congregation in 1890. In that same year the first church, a wood-shingled, Gothic revival style building, was erected on an orange grove on the edge of Los Angeles, next door to the site of the present church.

A World War I growth spurt sparked a need for a new church and a contest for a design was held. The winning entry was designed by brother architects Pierpont and Walter Davis, who began in 1922 to construct the church on a pay-as-you-go basis, modeling the exterior after the 11th century church of San Pietro in Tuscania, about 75 miles northwest of Rome. The church, consecrated in 1925, features reinforced concrete walls two and a half feet thick and supported by 150 tons of steel and piers, extending 16 feet below ground level, cushioned on an ancient river bed.

The interior includes a stained glass window featuring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., installed in 1977. Other windows depict the prophet Isaiah, St. Thomas, St. John the Evangelist and his brother, St. James; another is a classic Romanesque-style rose window.

Kowalewski said the beautiful gold mosaics on the chapel walls have been featured in books. "St. John's was the only church included on a tour of mosaics in Los Angeles" recently, he said. One mosaic depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ child and is modeled after the 13th century apse mosaic of the cathedral in Torcello, near Venice. On the south side of the chapel is a depiction of Jesus Christ as judge, holding a bible and giving a blessing, a design developed from 11th and 12th century conventions.

'A house of prayer for all people'
The process that resulted in St. John's becoming a cathedral involved vestry meetings with Bruno, a daylong retreat and some investigation of other cathedrals, according to Kowalewski.

Before an agreement was signed by the diocese and the parish, he and Daniel Ade, associate rector, learned that "nearly every cathedral in the United States is technically a "pro-Cathedral" -- that is, a parish church that takes on the ministry of serving as a cathedral for the diocese.

"People are positive about this," said Karen Uhler, St. John's junior warden. "Our location makes it a nice place for visitors to Los Angeles to stop."

She considers the cathedral designation "an opportunity for growth and expansion of programs. Plus, it feels good to officially host events in the diocese that need to have a larger facility to take place, like ordinations.

"It's good to be the official point, a designated space where the rest of the people in the diocese can visit," said Uhler, 67, a psychiatric nurse at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

Kowalewski said the congregation is offering hospitality for large gatherings. "It adds another dimension to the diocesan cathedral ministry but doesn't replace parish churches. But," he added, "this is also everyone's church, especially if people work downtown and want a place to come for quiet during the day, or to a service, they should feel absolutely welcome to come, because it is a church for the whole diocese and a house of prayer for all people."

The official designation ceremony will take place at 3 pm on Saturday, February 2. All in the diocese will be invited to attend.

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